Atlas Wept Review
Shrug It Off
Kbojisoft’s Atlas Wept readily evokes comparisons to Earthbound. Its retro graphics, adventure into the bizarre, and humanist themes all strike the right notes to attract plenty of those looking for another title in that style. Despite its themes and curious sci-fi world, the game remains appropriately grounded through its characters, allowing players to enjoy an emotional tale as well as pleasing classic RPG gameplay with its own engaging twist. Coming in at around twelve hours, it offers a worthwhile experience to all players, not just those immediately drawn to its stylings.
The game begins with players selecting a name and an initial difficulty level for a very brief prologue, though this is largely inconsequential to the rest of the plot. The game itself alternates between two groups of children on the world of Secundus. Hal and Lucy live in the technologically advanced nation of Orin, which is surrounded by enemies that regularly attack and subject to increasingly frequent earthquakes, but protected by an impenetrable shield. Meanwhile, Dezi lives a meaningless but pleasant existence in the seaside town of Boggleville. Hal and Lucy’s story sees the facade of Orin crumbling down while they try to help mysterious robotic dog Gigi find his brother. Dezi, questioning the world she lives in where everything is always the same, sees her adventure kicked off when she encounters another girl called Charlie, and the two try to stop the enigmatic Grins seeking to destroy emotion, which only they can see.
For much of the game, these two stories appear to be completely separate, and their exact connection isn’t revealed until very late on. It does mean that players will be fairly lost as to what’s going on in the opening stages, particularly as many details about the world are only given as optional notebook entries. However, the ultimate reveals work very nicely in providing the final piece of the puzzle and delivering the game’s themes about what it is to live. Information about the world of Secundus and the power governing it is steadily revealed across the game’s twelve chapters. It’s a melancholy tale that doesn’t end happily for all involved, but it’s always backed up by a sense of hope that shines through, drives things forward, and ultimately leads to a highly satisfying payoff in the end. The game provides the information it needs to without giving the entire picture, but enough to keep players going. All of the main characters get strong story arcs, making them personable and motivating their actions.
Each chapter involves working through a location before facing off against a boss fight at the end. There’s a good variety to these locations, as well as to the pathfinding puzzles each has within. There are a couple of occasions where players may need to rely on their memory for where to go next, although the world isn’t so big that simply going everywhere available wastes much time. By and large the locations are smartly designed, keeping players engaged but not going so far as to be obtuse. Some of the larger locations can take a while to explore fully; this isn’t necessary to progress, but many character power-ups can be found off the main path. Some sections require players to participate in some action-style button pressing, such manoeuvring a high-speed minecart between rails and dangers. Fortunately, the price for failure on these is simply to retry that particular section, so while there can be a little bit of annoyance it’s resolved by enough repetition and learning when to press what.
There are no random battles; instead combat begins when players encounter foes visible on the field. The game uses an ATB system for its turn-based combat, with combatants able to attack, use an ability or item, or undertake one of a couple of extra actions. Both physical attacks and skills use timed button presses to increase their effectiveness, while debuffs and status effects feature a similar mechanism to determine whether they are applied. Party characters have a HP bar and an inspiration bar, which automatically refills and is used by skills. The basics are all quite straightforward and easy to get to grips with.
The main twist of Atlas Wept is that all of the enemy attacks can be reduced, or nullified completely, through the tiny mini-games that accompany them. These vary greatly in their difficulty and style; some will feature bullet-hell avoidance of projectiles, while others might require jumping over advancing obstacles. It provides an interesting twist on an otherwise very straightforward combat system. Regardless, avoiding as many strikes as possible during these sections is imperative to success and taking a full hit will readily wipe out half or more of the character or full party’s health. Players who wish can spend time practicing any attack they have previously seen by interacting with dummies scattered around, while the game will readily offer advice for strategies when new elements are introduced to combat, including a breakable shield on enemies.
The party is fully healed after each battle, but max HP is actually reduced with every attack taken. On the base line difficulty, this doesn’t cause too many problems as fully restorative benches come regularly, but does help encourage players to avoid taking hits when they can. Interestingly, being reduced to zero health doesn’t immediately knock a party member out; players will note the red bar reducing over time to reach zero, giving them a little bonus time for an emergency heal before they do fall over. Players are also given freedom to change between four difficulty options when they wish, with the base Intended setting striking a decent, not-too-challenging balance. Combat can get a bit sluggish, as players will be able to follow a repeatable pattern in their tactics with each of the parties that only occasionally requires diverting from.
Outside of a shoot-’em-up arcade machine, there isn’t any side content to speak of; everything optional involves searching for money or possible power-ups and taking on regular enemies that are otherwise bypassed. These power-ups come in the form of shaped stickers that can be placed on each party member’s board and grant permanent boosts to their relevant attributes. It’s a nice touch to offer a small level of customisation on character builds, with other growth involving party-wide experience-based level ups. New battle abilities can be found in out-of-the-way places, but there are more of these unlock spots than abilities in the game, so players shouldn’t be worried about missing any as they’ll find them again later.
The retro presentation offers a solid if unspectacular backing to Atlas Wept. Although it certainly might lack the wow factor of other styles, there’s good variation to the characters, locations, and enemies to give everything some character, plus enough general weirdness to fit its sci-fi-centred themes. While battle effects and flashiness are minimised, the information, UI, and sound effects still manage to evoke the necessary sense and back-and-forth of combat. The unobtrusive music fits in with the visual style and the game’s overall thematic approaches.
Although it might be hard for Atlas Wept to stand out among the flood of games currently available, it offers strong bang for its buck. The dozen-hour playtime is perfectly judged and fits in nicely with the depth of gameplay and breadth of its story. It’s a worthwhile experience, offering a touching tale that examines humanity with a vital spark of hope at the end.
Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Story builds up to a very satisfying conclusion
Good balance between story and combat
Some of the larger areas are annoying to explore
Certain enemy attacks are frustrating to try and avoid